American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Alaska, Mount Hunter

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

AVALANCHE

Alaska, Mount Hunter

On May 15, 1987, the two-man “Over-the-Kahiltna Gang” expedition registered at the Talkeetna Ranger Station for a climb of the west ridge of Mount Hunter. Expedition members were Ben Benson (29) and Frank Jenkins (37), both from Anchorage. On May 28, about 0530, Benson and Jenkins were approaching the summit of Mount Hunter (4415 meters) when they triggered a soft-slab avalanche which swept both men several hundred meters down the slope they had just ascended. Jenkins was almost completely buried during the slide, but after considerable effort and between 30 and 45 minutes, he was able to dig himself out. Jenkins was then able to follow their climbing rope to locate Benson, who was completely buried. Another 10 to 15 minutes was required to extricate Benson’s head and chest. Jenkins determined Benson was dead. The weather was severe and Jenkins was forced to begin an immediate solo descent of the difficult west ridge. Jenkins was eventually able to reach another climbing party at about 3200 meters on the west ridge. Poor weather prevented their descent to the Kahiltna Base Camp until May 29. Snow has covered all evidence of Benson’s body and has prohibited recovery efforts. (Source: Bob Seibert, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

Even though Benson and Jenkins began their climb concerned about avalanche dangers, they quickly dismissed those hazards when they encountered solid snow conditions on the lower portions of the route.

Even after several consecutive days of significant snowfall and strong winds, and triggering a slab avalanche earlier on the day of the accident, the climbing party did not realize there was an avalanche hazard. After the accident, Jenkins stated that when he and Benson disagreed about the final route to the summit, Jenkins’ reasoning to use the ridge was based upon time they might spend in a belay stance rather than less avalanche hazard. The climbers simply did not think there was an avalanche hazard. Other observations:

Jenkins had removed his pack and disconnected the straps from his arms to his ice ax. He was able to “swim” during the slide. This may have had a significant effect upon Jenkins’ final position in the snow. In contrast, Benson was wearing his pack, including waist belt, and had an ice tool attached to both wrists. Benson’s final “spread-eagle” resting position indicates the extra drag of the tools and pack may have been instrumental in determining his final position.

Both climbers had received basic avalanche awareness training through Anchorage Community College. (See Pioneer Peak accident, March 16, 1987).

Jenkins had received basic first-aid training with the military many years before. He never had advanced medical or CPR training. He indicated he never gave thought to CPR. Even though it was probably too late, an effort to initiate full CPR would have probably been appropriate. The few chest compressions were not given in conjunction with supplemental breaths.

Benson had been described as a very strong-willed individual who would be very difficult to turn from a specific direction once he had made a decision. Jenkins was an opposite personality who did not like to argue. Benson’s fateful decision to take the direct route up the slope rather than continue the additional 100 meters to the summit ridge sealed his fate. (Source: Bob Seibert, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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